Time travel fiction takes many forms, we list ten of the genre's most important worksby Jeremy Gordon / September 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
In his Prospect article “The rise of time machine fiction,” Sam Sacks identified that “once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel fiction has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction.” There is a distinction to be made between time travel fiction, where there is a physical device such as a time machine involved, and the “time machine fiction” that Sacks discusses. In the latter, time travel—in many different forms which reject linear narrative—tends to be used less as a device to drive plot than as a means to explore universal human relationships and themes. Contrary to intuition, it might be seen as the very opposite of the specificity of historical fiction.
Here we present a potted history of time travel in literature from the best to the most original to the downright bizarre.
The obscure original
Enrique Gaspar’s El Anacronópete, 1887
Spanish writer Gaspar wrote El Anacronópete (meaning something that “flies backward through time”) in 1887, a full eight years before HG Well’s The Time Machine, making him the first literary inventor of the time machine. While Well’s novel has never been out of print, however, Gaspar’s fell into obscurity for over a century before being rescued by a Spanish science fiction club in 1999. The protagonist Don Sindulfo García, who ostensibly invents the machine so he can go back in time and marry his niece, and ends up travelling to several places in history, before finally crashing at the moment of creation itself. Much like Dr Who’s Tardis, Gaspar’s time machine is bigger on the inside than out, coming complete with a kitchen and observation deck. El Anacronópete was published in English in 2012 as The Time Ship.
The bestselling one
HG Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895
While Wells may not be the creator of time machine fiction, he is certainly the author who popularised it in the public imagination. Unlike Gaspar’s travellers, who go back in time, Wells’ lone time-traveller heads to the year 802,701 AD. The plot of Wells’ classic is undeniably strange. The time traveller meets two competing races, imagined to have evolved from humans, the elegant Eloi and the troglodyte Morlocks, before, in a trope that will become a classic of the genre, his…